Boston has its Tanglewood, Cleveland has the Blossom Festival. Serious summer music making in Nashville is not so concentrated in one place, but it is there, and it can be very good.
For 40 years, the University of the South at Sewanee has hosted the Sewanee Summer Music Festival as part of its summer music program. This year’s series of concerts got under way June 23 with a performance in Guerry Hall by the Sewanee Festival Orchestra. Paul Polivnick conducted a program of pops favorites that leaned heavily in the operatic and vocal direction.
The opening number, a performance of the overture to Verdi’s Nabucco, was prophetic of the strong points and the weaknesses of all that followed. The brass choir had an exceptionally well-blended sound that became somewhat retiring when the strings began. After spending so many months reveling in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s woodwinds, I thought the SFO’s winds sounded positively anemic when they were a part of the full ensemble. Oddly enough, many members of the percussion section, placed almost in the wings to the left of the stage, were also difficult to hearthe snare drum suffered most in this respect, but the cymbal player was also hard to hear throughout the numbers that followed.
The real surprise was the full, very rich, and largely in tune string section. Judging from the players’ varying ages, I would guess that the Sewanee Festival Orchestra was comprised of both professional and student players, but to my ear there was scarcely a difference in the strings. I was particularly impressed by the steadiness of their tone and their general resistance from scooping up to the note.
Of the other purely instrumental numbersworks by Debussy, Rossini, Humperdinck, and Straussthe Debussy Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune was marked by a honeyed string sound and good work by the horn section. The Evening Prayer and Dream Pantomime From Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck was an especial pleasure because of the clean string soundthe temptation to resort to the trashy sound of rapid tremolo was virtuously resisted. The only real problem here was a scrappy transition passage between the prayer and pantomime sequence.
Perhaps the scrappiest playing of the concert came in the final number, the Thunder and Lightning Polka of Johann Strauss. Percussion problems were much in evidence: As in the opening Verdi number, the snare drummer had problems being heard, although, in this instance, he also had trouble keeping time with the ensemble.
As to the vocal numbers on the program, baritone Paul Rowe had an uneven afternoon. Mr. Rowe is possessed of a medium-powered instrument of fine lyricism, yet, in the extracts from Faust, Marriage of Figaro, and Donizetti, he kept trying to push his voice to make dramatic points. Although he never descended to woofinessthat semi-tonal barking of notes that plagues baritoneshis stresses sometimes pushed his notes off pitch.
Rowe had frequent problems with the orchestra covering his vocal line, especially in moments of great expression, but he helped to compensate for this by his exceptionally clear enunciation. His best singing of the afternoon was to be found in the selections from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs. Again, his superb enunciation made these an especial pleasure, and the essential lyricism of his voice transformed “Long Time Ago,” “At the River,” and “Little Horses” from old songs into art songs. Particularly memorable was Rowe’s way with the phrase “blacks and bays...dapples and grays.” It was perfect.
The Orchestra will be performing on other occasions throughout the festival, and there’s much more besides. Special guests for this 40th season are the members of the Tokyo String Quartet, but this concert proved that the participants in the summer program are a good enough reason to take the trek south.
Nashville’s best-known venue for summer symphonies is, of course, the Mustard Meadow at Cheekwood. The Nashville Symphony concluded its popular summer season there last Sunday night, and, as the society columnists are wont to say, “a good time was had by all.” The good time was as much a part of the evening as the music, since the amplification system used for this concert made the orchestra sound like a gramophone record. Bass, especially the double basses and timpani sounds, was peculiarly enhanced, and the orchestral highs had a peculiarly cottony quality. But, speaking as someone who does listen to classic performances on old 78s, the music was still there.
Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn, heeding the conductorial injunction that there are different tempi for different sound spaces, led performances of works by Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky that were considerably slower than they would have been had this concert taken place at TPAC. If the Mendelssohn did not quite have the elfin lightness that it does in the concert hall, the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was right on point, with the sounds of a summer night adding their own obbligati.
The same could be said for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony No. 2: The drones of the cicadas and the sounds of the frogs in the Cheekwood watercourses added their own piquancy. This is not to say that this amphibian chorus was the only notable aspect of the performance. Throughout the reading, the brass choir was particularly effective, and the percussion effects workedmostly. The third movement was particularly well done; though, like the Mendelssohn, the performance was not as light as it might have been in a concert hall, the darkness heightened the muted “Russian” aspects of this movement. The last movement of the Tchaikovsky featured the best ensemble sound of the evening, with an especially fun Rossini crescendo ending.
The featured work of the evening, dedicated to the late Michael Karr, former violist with the NSO, was the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K 320d. The soloists, Mary Kathryn Vanosdale and Kathryn Plummer, enjoyed some success here, not the least because they dared to use good instruments in this outdoor setting. This meant that the audience was spared the scraunchy tone that often comes with second-line instruments.
Unfortunately, the peculiarities of the acoustics meant that the soloists had trouble hearing themselves. This must be the reason that both had pitch difficulties with almost every ornament throughout the piece. They were best in the simple elegiac cadenza in the second movement. As to the rest of the ensemble, much of this sinfonia concertante has the feel of an outdoor serenade, and that made it a good choice for this location. The NSO’s woodwinds had trouble being heard, but the horns were having a good night. They sounded as if they enjoyed playing in the heat and humidity.
The livin’ may not be so easy as you fight your way down the roads and through the crowds to one of these summer music events, but it’s worth it.
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